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Cue the wistful nostalgia tunes: After a year and a half spent writing and editing this blog and Washington City Paper‘s arts section, I am sad to say that next week will be my last. I came to the job with a lot of idealistic plans, a few local art projects under my belt, and a fierce passion for alternative media. I’ll leave with a more nuanced sense of how local political and economic forces can fuck over artists and arts institutions, a deeper appreciation for D.C. artists’ chutzpah and creativity, and a few new near-and-dear friends.
To the extent that any of my work has helped D.C. residents understand the city’s cultural landscape—and I hope, for my sanity’s sake, that at least some of it has—I owe an armful of thanks to the colleagues and sources who helped me find my footing in the arts scene, encouraged me to pursue exciting stories off my beat, took the time to catch me up on the minutiae of D.C. music history, taught me to FOIA (Will Sommer!), and made this a job that I’m convinced is one of the most challenging and rewarding ones out there.
As a parting gift for you and a cathartic exercise for me, here are a few of my favorite pieces and the lessons they’ve taught me.
Stories about art are rarely just about art.
My favorite arts stories to report are the ones that illuminate art’s intersection with politics, economics, and identity. For every controversial installation, there’s an angry neighbor (if you’re lucky, a full-on NIMBY), an artist with a strong point of view, and a political appointee doing a cost-benefit analysis. Behind every property shake-up that leaves a painting hanging in the balance, there are demographic shifts, neighborhood history, and questions of ownership.
Embrace the weird.
Usually, when an unannounced visitor shows up at the WCP office [Editor’s note: please do not do this], we’re in for an unhinged rant or a droning pitch from a publicist two hours before the paper goes to print. So, in April, when our receptionist told me that a retirement-age man was waiting for me in the lobby with a rolling suitcase and a stack of papers, I steeled myself for an unpleasant encounter.
But—against my better judgment, perhaps—I stuck around for the man’s entire presentation, and I’m so glad I did. That’s how I met Mount Pleasant resident Bob “Hoff” Hoffman, the owner of the world’s largest collection of handcrafted harmonica cases, each of which is personalized with his name or likeness. (In case you’re curious, yes, the case above is anatomically correct underneath the harmonica.) The story ended up being one of the most whimsical I’ve ever reported, and Hoff was a joy to get to know.
Save your craziest ideas for when the boss is out of the office.
Though I will relinquish the WCP arts editor post next week, I will forever hang on to my station as publisher/chairperson/editor in chief of Washington Miami Paper, our pop-up Sunshine State bureau established for last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach.
Poynter published a lovely account of WMP‘s origins, which stemmed from an offhand comment I made to then-City Desk reporter (and Miami native) Perry Stein about taking a team vacation to Art Basel to cover the D.C. artists and galleries showing work there. She took it seriously, got her grandmother to agree to put us up at her house (above), and by the time our then-editor Mike Madden returned from his appointment with his ophthalmologist, we’d made a dedicated Slack channel and begun pricing flights. The trip was all kinds of fun, but it also gave me fresh insight into how this city’s artists and gallerists fit into the broader context of the global art market.
If something sounds suspicious, it probably is.
One Tuesday this May, the WCP newsroom was abuzz over a Gothamist piece that promised “5 Reasons You Should Actually Spend A Weekend In D.C.” For an article presented as a general tour guide to the District, the post seemed strangely fixated on one particular Dupont Circle hotel and its immediate environs. Was it a coincidence or lazy reporting? Neither. A phone call to the Embassy Row Hotel revealed that the author had been comped a weekend’s stay, meals, and travel expenses, which she’d failed to disclose. It was a good lesson for me in skepticism; I’ll sorely miss acting as nonconsensual ombudsman to any publication that writes about D.C.
Seek out marginalized or underrepresented voices.
Some of Arts Desk’s most popular posts of all time were from a series of Orange is the New Black reviews by a woman who’d served time in Maryland penitentiaries. In conversation with writer Adam Dawson, the self-described ex-con railed against the show’s inaccuracies and engaged on a personal level with its realer moments, reliving her own memories in the process. Hilarious and heartfelt, they were unlike any other recap I read last year (and I read way too many) because they considered the narrative through the lens of someone with real insight that rarely makes it to a public platform. Ditto the section of our Etiquette Issue that recommended appropriate behaviors for clients of sex workers.
Sometimes, it’s worth taking commenters seriously…
Before we published a cover story on the current state of DIY arts spaces in D.C., which was accompanied by a series of maps chronicling the changing types and locations of these spaces over the last decade, my editors and I thought long and hard about how to balance truthful, useful storytelling with the privacy concerns of those who live and work in the places we pinpointed on the maps. We decided to limit the maps’ zooming function to obscure exact addresses, and we only included spaces whose addresses were easily accessible on the Internet. Still, we got lots of comments (some of which have since been deleted by their authors) from readers who disagreed with our choice. We stood by our decision, but the conversation that emerged shed a lot of good light on fraught discussions of privacy and publicity that have accompanied DIY spaces as long as they’ve existed. (Incidentally, one woman who sent me an angry email about the map—her house was not a DIY venue, she said—is now one of my close friends and bandmates. It gave me no small amount of pleasure when our band played a show at her house last month.)
…but most of the time, it’s not.
The trolls, the trolls! From a confused commenter who suspected I’d never “face fucked or gotten a deep-throat bj from a girl” to the race-baiter who found a photo of me and decided that “a womyn like CC who shaves the side of her head likes boxes, not bros,” I’ve faced down my fair share of losers and ignoramuses in the comments section. I expect far more egregious and committed trolls in my new gig (I’ll be writing about women and gender issues at Slate), so I’m glad to have had the chance to thicken my skin and find the Twitter mute button here at City Paper.
In one memorable case (above), a Twitter simpleton’s delicate sensibilities were stirred by the Washington Blade‘s miniature Red Scare (a response to my critique of Capital Pride). The merry pranksters of Jack on Fire ran with Shelter Somerset‘s righteous screed and gifted me several dozen highly accurate business cards (below), which I will distribute to CPAC attendees and “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt purveyors until the end of time.
I’ll stop here before I get too squishy and sentimental, but suffice to say I will miss the bejesus out of this job, this paper, and the people who make it. When I come back for a surprise visit just before deadline with a rolling suitcase and a towering stack of papers, please let me in.
Tire and burlap photo by Darrow Montgomery; Miami photo by Ben Droz
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post stated that Mike Madden had an appointment with his optometrist. It was an appointment with his ophthalmologist.